I work with startups day in and day out. The startup life is hard.
I also speak a lot with inventors and entrepreneurs. One thing I see often and hear more is just how hard it is to start from nothing.
The people I speak with are at the very grass-roots of medtech. They may either be clinicians, nurses, researchers, or patients themselves. They have seen a need to be addressed, and are trying to figure out how to meet that need.
But that is all. Other than their area of expertise, they have no technical knowledge, no capital, and no supplier connections.
I can certainly sympathise with them. When I started Virtimachi more than two years ago, I had nothing but the idea of it. And even the idea I started out with ended up changing into something else entirely.
Building Steam With A Grain Of Salt by DJ Shadow has been my office anthem.
There's are of course incubators and accelerators that can help nurture these early-stage startups. And as they grow, angel, VC, and grant money becomes more and more available. After all, success attracts more success.
But there is a knowledge and funding gap at the very roots of the innovation biome.
As Intan Oldkowska mentioned in her interview on the Startup News podcast, there is a lack of funding available to very early stage startups that do not yet have their own funding.
Very early-stage startups, especially ones without a proof of concept, are extremely risky.
Venture capital (VC) will always wish to see the potential for a return in a startup before investing. They are, after all, in the business of making money. And in today's economic climate, VC funding has become much more risk-adverse.
Government grants are often even more risk adverse than VC, and the additional red tape to securing grants can be challenging for a startup of one or two people. NSW's MVP Grant was a fantastic step in the right direction. But as with most grants I'm aware of at this size, they're all matched funding grants. And the problem with matched funding grants is you need the funding to match.
There does need to be some level of funding available that can activate these ideas and move them towards a pre-defined go/no-go decision point. A point up to which there is no expectation of success, and no need to have anything more than an idea worth trying. I could imagine this point being specific junction where if the idea had legs, it was in a good place to then seek grant for VC money. A pre-grant grant wouldn't need to be a lot of money either - entrepreneurs are notorious for succeeding (or failing) with little. Obviously there would need to be some level of eligibility and review to keep the riffraff out.
And I imagine this could only ever be possible as a government grant scheme.
The Australian government has announced the Industry Growth Program this year which may go some way to fill that gap, but as yet it doesn't exist in any meaningful way (ie. an actual grant).
In the absence of that funding, inventors and entrepreneurs are bootstrapping their ideas. Which in the medical device space, a space that takes years and hundreds of thousands of dollars to get a device on the market, sounds absurd.
But when you start from nothing, sometimes the only force you have is your force of will.
Start with what you can do, and build on it. As Intan says in her interview:
Just keep going.
It is extremely slow to start, but if your idea is a good one, you will build momentum if you keep going.
With momentum, other things will start to happen. As I said at the beginning of the piece, success will attract success. This may start to take the shape of incubator or accelerator programs - especially competitive ones. Programs like BridgeTech, MDPP, Cicada, AUSCEP, Biodesign Australia, Medtech Actuator, et al. They all apply a force (through knowledge and sometimes funding) to a body (according to Newton's second law of motion) that allows it to accelerate.
There are other ways to build momentum too.
Don't ever forget that Theranos raised $700 million in funding with nothing more than an idea borrowed from sci-fi. While I don't condone fraud to raise capital, getting people stoked on your idea is mostly about getting people stoked on your idea. Realising that idea is of course what you need the capital for.
The more you can flesh out that idea, giving it shape and weight, the easier people - people with resources (knowledge and money), will be able to envision the outcome. And importantly for them, their return on their investment.
Putting Flesh on the Bones
There are several good ways to add flesh to the bones of your idea that are easy to do, cost little, and help create momentum.
As much as I hate to admit it, social media is a powerful force for building a network and gaining traction. Obviously in medtech there are limits around intellectual property, confidentiality, and medical device advertising, but a strong social media presence will build social proof. With a big enough following and enough social proof, you can literally sell anything.
As a side, sometimes the limitation isn't technical know-how or funding. Sometimes all a project needs is to build awareness. As an example, the Health Innovation Living Lab recently opened at Newcastle's John Hunter hospital, but despite being funded, built, and ready to use, it's yet to reach critical mass. Social media could be one way to activate that.
I want to be clear on something though; I think that in twenty years from now we'll be talking about social media the same way we talk about cigarettes now.
Proof of Concept
A proof of concept (POC) is the most fundamental prototype possible that proves or disproves an idea. I wrote at length about what to do once you have a proof of concept, but if you don't have one, how do you even start?
I might expand this into a full article another time, but a proof of concept is a very simple prototype that proves the validity your idea. It contains only the most basic elements necessary to demonstrate that your technology works. Ideally, almost nothing is bespoke - just cobbled together from resources available to you from places like Bunnings, Jaycar, and Core Electronics.
Understand your idea, and break it down into its component parts. Think what things will serve just enough to show the idea works. It doesn't have to be pretty, and you don't have to prove all of your concepts in a single prototype. You could very well have several POCs, each addressing a different aspect of the idea. Start with the riskiest part and then go from there.
A viable proof of concept, while ugly, can be a beautiful thing for attracting interest in a project. It can demonstrate the idea works, which can in turn reduce project risks. This will make your project far more attractive to someone looking to help you succeed.
Ever seen those 'artist's impression's of a black hole? That's basically product visualisation. It's taking the idea, including its technical features, use and usability, and creating designs that communicate what a successful product could look like based on those. The designs are usually modelled and rendered to provide photo-realism, but they don't have to be. They could be high-fidelity sketches.
Product visualisation is not likely something you could just 'knock up' in your garage. Though you certainly could if you're short on funds and commit to learning some fundamental design skills and model/render tools.
Product visualisation can be extremely powerful when the concept or its use are complex and difficult to imagine. By filling in the blanks for those looking to invest time or money into your idea, the mental leap they need to make is smaller. The less heavy lifting they need to do, the better.
Be warned though; Theranos was very good at this. It's best to stay out of the realms of science fiction.
Putting it Together
Let people see your technology as it is now, and show a clear vision of where it can go. A viable proof of concept and some stunning visuals added into your pitch deck will make your idea significantly more compelling.
When people can see the success in your idea, they'll in turn want to be a part of that success.
Success attracts success.
I write about design and medtech every week. Please don't hesitate to get in touch and let me know what you think. I'd love to hear your feedback. I'd also suggest subscribing to the newsletter, I post lots of interesting design-related links in there. Until next week!